Through one half of basketball North Carolina trailed No. 5 Duke 37-30, with the Blue Devils shooting 50% from the field and scoring 26 points in the paint. Between those defensive issues and the fact that leading scorer Marcus Paige failed to score a single point, it was clear what needed to occur in order for Roy Williams’ team to have any shot at knocking off Duke.
And sure enough North Carolina got the job done on both fronts, with their switching between man-to-man and two different zone defenses (1-3-1 and 3-2) neutralizing the Duke offense for much of the second half. That adjustment combined with Paige scoring all 13 of his points in the second half resulted in a 74-66 North Carolina victory, their fourth over a team ranked in the Top 10 (at the time of the game) this season.
After starting ACC play 1-4 the Tar Heels have now won eight straight games, and on this night their work on the defensive end was crucial. Duke went more than eight minutes between made field goals in the second half, and their 35.5% shooting in the second half featured too many jump shots and not enough opportunities in the paint.
Duke’s going to take a lot of jumpers, especially from beyond the arc as they score 35% of their points from three. But with the shots missing their mark Duke needed to get the ball inside more often, and North Carolina was able to prevent this from happening for much of the second half.
As for the offensive effort, Paige was key in the second half but he wasn’t alone in carrying the load offensively for North Carolina. Leslie McDonald, who after reaching double figures in five straight games had struggled in North Carolina’s last four contests, got off to a hot start and finished the game with 21 points. McDonald made nine of his 12 shots from the field, including all eight of his two-point attempts, snapping out of a slump in which he shot 8-for-31 in the four games prior to Thursday night.
It’s been well established that North Carolina isn’t going to be a team that racks up the points like prior Roy Williams-coached teams, with their having just one consistent perimeter scoring threat (Paige) and a host of other contributors looking to become more consistent options. But they’ve been good defensively during their current win streak, and with a move to their zone defense North Carolina was able to change the momentum of Thursday’s game and win their eighth straight.